Penn State football is almost unrecognizable.
Between the ESPN segments and the Instagram hype videos, the live interviews and the talking head praise, the buzz has officially arrived in Happy Valley. Penn State is, as they say, “back.” Back to raising trophies, back to top ten national rankings, back to 8:00 p.m. starts against early season cupcakes because ratings matter, and Saquon Barkley and Trace McSorley bring them in spades.
Penn State is “back to where they used to be,” or so they say.
Where they used to be is a funny thing, though. Where Penn State used to be was winning bowl games with elite players, which Joe Paterno certainly accomplished throughout his lengthy tenure. Just as James Franklin convinced Barkley to join this latest squad, Joe Paterno brought Curt Warner and Ki-Jana Carter to Happy Valley. McSorley, another Franklin recruit, slings the rock like Todd Blackledge and Chuck Fusina before him. In 2017, everything old is new again, and Penn State is where it belongs, back among its peers in the hallowed halls of college football power programs. Standing shoulder to shoulder with Michigan and Ohio State, leading the Big Ten’s own redemption.
It’s strange, though, because outside of the uniforms and the winning, this Penn State program looks basically nothing like its predecessors.
Penn State used to be held tightly under lock and key. Players kept their hair short and their beards shorter. Through the early aughts, freshmen never spoke to the media and the program never marketed any of its superstars for post-season honors. The media was rarely at practice and had little access inside the Lasch Building. Paterno rarely granted extensive interviews, particularly as the decade came to a close. Press conferences mostly consisted of the same cliches week after week after week - “We gotta be careful or we’re gonna get licked.” “That number 28 is a really good player.” “Sometimes, you gotta give the other guy all the credit in the world for being a good football team.”
For four decades, Penn State was so vanilla that it turned vanilla into an art form. That gave alums and fans a certain comfort, and was fine as long as Penn State was in contention for a high profile bowl or a conference title. The 80s and 90s were golden years, when the Nittany Lions could offer itself as the Mitchell & Ness of college football - throwback winners who could give you a different experience than any other competitor.
But as the 90’s turned into the 00’s and the world became more digital, Penn State found itself in a malaise. While most major programs understood the college sports arms race and the need to market to a new generation with different methods, upgraded facilities and improved access, Penn State closed itself off even further, clinging to graduation rates and winning seasons as a sign of its purity in the ugly morass of big money college sports. By the time the summer of 2011 rolled around, Penn Staters were encouraged by the simple sight of the eighty-four year old Paterno Skyping with four star running back Will Mahone. At the time, some random BSD writer who definitely was not me managed to call Paterno “awfully progressive” for his use of basic technology.
Those graduation rates remain high and the winning seasons have remarkably continued in spite of overwhelming sanctions in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal. Penn State players remain clad in the iconic basic blues and black shoes that the program has branded for generations. This program, though, is wholly different from the ones that came before it. The first head coaching hire after Paterno was another Ivy Leaguer, but one that made his name in the professional ranks. He brought with him an offense that landed two quarterbacks in the NFL, something that this program could not boast about since the late-1990s. Penn State’s current head coach not only video chats with recruits, but manages to take selfies with the student section. “Three yards and a cloud of dust” is out, and chunk plays are the norm. Saquon Barkley and Trace McSorley are two of college football’s most exciting players. Before, their performance was all that you might see. Now, McSorley goes through progressions with Trevor Matich and Barkley is featured on Sports Science.
If 2016 is the year Penn State surprised everyone, 2017 is the offseason in which it has solidified its return to prominence. Despite the vanilla look, this program remains anything but. It looks as though Franklin and his squad will make the world well aware of that as we move forward.